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Sales of fuel-efficients stall

April 1, 2011
Automakers are spending more than $50 billion to meet the government’s 2016 fuel economy law, but consumers aren’t buying enough of the fuel-efficient vehicles necessary for automakers to achieve the required 35.5 miles-per-gallon average.
Despite rising gas prices and new electric cars and hybrids, the fuel economy of Americans’ new vehicles stagnated last year.
In fact, the 2010 average of all new vehicles actually slipped to 22.2 mpg from 22.3 mpg, according to a report from Ward’s Automotive Reports that examined calendar-year sales.
With unleaded regular gasoline now averaging $3.56 a gallon nationally — up from a 2010 average of $2.84 — car buyers are thinking more about fuel economy than they were last year. But replacing a large vehicle with a smaller one is farther than many buyers are going.
Hybrid car sales actually shrunk from 2.9 percent of new-vehicle sales in 2009 to 2.4 percent last year. Sales of light trucks — pickups, SUVs, crossovers and minivans — rose to 51 percent from 48 percent over the same period.
Said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers: “For consumers to really change their buying habits, they must believe higher gas prices are a long-term change, and by long-term, they mean five years or more.”
If automakers don’t meet the standard four years from now, they could face fines if the law is not rewritten.
Larger vehicles still favored
There now are 160 models on the market that get 30 or more miles per gallon. Plug-in vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf now are available, as are 25 gasoline-electric hybrids. Even more are on the way as automakers rush to hit the most aggressive fuel-economy requirements since the government began regulating efficiency in the mid-1970s. Yet, even as gas approaches $4 a gallon, consumer acceptance of high-mileage technology has been lukewarm at best.
In the first two months of the year, Chevrolet sold 602 Volts while Nissan sold 154 Leafs. In the same period, by contrast, Cadillac sold 2,793 Escalades and Lincoln sold 1,193 Navigators.
“Consumers are the wild card,” said Bergquist. “Americans have mostly chosen to buy larger vehicles. Crossovers accounted for 2.9 million sales last year, compared to 2 million for subcompacts and compacts together.”
Still, the new standards have automakers under pressure to make sure each redesigned model is considerably more efficient than the one it replaces. The 2011 Ford Explorer with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine gets 18 mpg. in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway. The 2010 Explorer with a 4.0-liter V6 was rated at 14/20 mpg.
But if everyone buys a leaner version of the same vehicle being replaced, that won’t be enough for automakers to meet the government’s average fuel economy standard of 35.5 mpg by 2016 — unless they’re selling mostly passenger cars and large volumes of hybrids, for which manufacturers earn CAFE credits.
Bergquist said consumer buying behavior toward better fuel economy is not aggressive enough to meet the looming 35.5 mpg standard.